The study of communication has long been a formidable presence in the world of academia and a topic of discourse among its influencing scholars. Since ancient times when rhetoric, oratory and persuasion were vital to the Greek and Roman empires, communication and the study thereof has endured. And it can be traced back even farther to the beginnings of civilization. Because of its widespread, necessary and self-evident use, communication has been labeled the most humanizing activity one can engage in.
And today, communication and its associated particulars have developed further and become a field that not only permeates almost every area of academia and human culture but also changes the reality of the world we live in. It has grown from a “means to and end” perspective to being viewed as an integral part of the human condition that creates and shapes everything around us. It is not a way of life; it is what creates the ways of life.
This evolution of thought or the realization of what communication actually is has been established over many thousands of years and been impacted on different levels by those who were both fascinated by its content and dedicated to understanding its complex intricacies. Two such individuals that acquired a thirst for the exposition of communication were Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver. In 1949, when the telephone had already been invented (1876) and digital computers had recently been developed (tools for digital messaging),
Shannon, an electrical engineer and Weaver, a mathematician, formulated what is know today as Information Theory in response to the technological advance by researching fundamental limits on signal processing operations. The result, a published work titled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” (1963) dealt with the issue of noise influence on how much of a message arrived at its intended destination. More specifically, Shannon and Weaver sought to address communication problems on three different levels.
Level A: “How accurately can the symbols of communication be transmitted? ” Level B: “How precisely do the transmitted symbols convey the desired meaning? ” Level C: “How effectively does the received meaning affect conduct in the desired way? ” (Shannon, Ch. 1) While Shannon focused more on the engineering and mathematical implications of the theory in relation to technology, it was Weaver who offered philosophical insight into the more practical area of interpersonal communication.
It is Shannon and Weavers Information Theory that this composition will research in an attempt to explain, give credence to by appropriate, real-life application and critique so as to identify the effect this particular aspect of communication has had on the field as a whole. Furthermore this research article will include personal insight and interpretation of the theory as it applies to the authors experience in life. Exposition
Information Theory has been dubbed the mother theory of communication and rightly so; almost every communication theory operates under the assumed umbrella of Shannon and Weavers mathematical model. The model, shown in Figure 1, illustrates the linear perspective of communication that Information theory personifies. Information begins at one end of the spectrum, travels through a number of processing centers and eventually arrives at its destination, all the while, noise inhibiting this process.
To understand the effects of noise on a message, Shannon came up with the concept of entropy; a measure of uncertainty associated with the contents of a message. This concept represents the best possible procured message after having traveled through the various processing centers; that is the closest a message can be to its original content and context after having been altered somewhat by various conditions when it reaches its target. Entropy (H) was measured using the following equation where (E) is the expected value of the information content (I) of (X), a random variable. Shannon, Ch. 2) (Wikipedia) H(X) = E(I(X)) Examining the components of the Shannon-Weaver Mathematical model is essential to understanding the application of this theory in accordance with interpersonal communication. The model reads left to right and begins with an information source; the thing or person that creates a message intended to reach a target (destination). For this example, I will use “Jack” as the source and “Jill” as the destination.
When Jack creates a message (information to be conveyed), he must first encode (format) the message in a way that Jill will be able to decode (interpret) and understand. This is normally an unconscious cognitive process. The encoded message then travels from Jack and through a channel (a medium through which a message is being sent), in this case the channel is verbal and nonverbal language. Jill, being on the receiving end of the channel then decodes (interprets) the perceived message and either understands it or does not understand it.
Shannon and Weaver’s Mathematical Model of Information Theory When Shannon observed technological messages and concluded that the message received did not equal the message sent (static for example) he sought to explain why with this model. Weaver saw an even bigger picture and bridged Shannon’s research and observations to interpersonal communication. The findings outlined certain communicative inhibitors labeled “noise contamination” that affected every component of the linear model and consequently altered the message in some way before it arrived at the intended target.
Noise is considered anything that alters or distorts the original message. The concept of noise during communication has further been developed into various divisions that define noise contamination specifically to interpersonal communication. The three forms of noise are physical (loud music, airplanes, pen clicking), semantic or when there is no shared meaning between the source and destination (language and vocabulary are examples of this) and internal or psychological noise (noise in your cognitive being such as distracting thoughts or even not listening due to fatigue).
For example if there had been a siren going off or Jack had been coughing mid-message, if the message contained vocabulary that Jill didn’t understand or even if Jill had gotten distracted by a passing butterfly, then the original message from Jack was interfered with and did not reach Jill in its intended form. In a more dramatic example: What if Jack had been speaking an entirely different language than Jill understood? Jill’s interpretation of that message would have been severely limited. (Mortensen) In addition, Shannon and Weaver discuss in their findings another variable that led to message inhibition.
Channel capacity is defined as the limit of information a channel can reliably transmit without message inhibition. (Wikipedia) (Shannon, Ch. 2) If the message content exceeds the channels capacity to transmit the message than the content and meaning are decreased. The equation for channel capacity is as follows: (Shannon, Ch. 2) (Touretzky) Where channel capacity (C) is defined by the maximum information (maxI) of a given channel (f) distributed among the space of messages transmitted (X) and the space of messages received (Y).
In technological terms, megabytes/second might be an abbreviated example of this. (Touretzky) However in interpersonal communication terms it is somewhat different. If Jack was madly in love with Jill and wanted to convey that to her, a verbal channel would not necessarily have enough capacity to transmit a message as robust with emotion as that one. (Often in communication there are no existing channels adept enough to convey certain messages of extreme emotion. ) Similarly, certain channels are more adept at conveying certain types of messages better than others.
For instance, if Jack and Jill were on their honeymoon in Thailand and Jack was upset at a waiter for spilling wine all over Jill but he did not speak the same language as the waiter, simply telling the waiter he was upset would not convey an appropriate message, the content would be lost because of semantic noise through an incapable channel. However, if Jack explodes into an angry rant filled with rage and contorted facial expressions, the waiter would understand that Jack is angry about something.
In this case a nonverbal communication channel would work better than a verbal one. The capacity of the nonverbal channel would be greater than the capacity of the verbal channel to reliably transmit the message. (Griffin) The last important piece to this theory that Shannon and Weaver defined within their study was the concept of redundancy. Although this concept has been largely abandoned in terms of its importance to interpersonal communication, it was important to the mathematical theorem outlined by Shannon and is worth mentioning.
Throughout Shannon and Weavers work, A Mathematical Theory of Communication they repeatedly mention the importance of reducing redundancy in addition to noise. Redundancy is the amount of wasted space used to transmit data, that is, the excessive information within a message that is not required to transmit because of pre-existing knowledge or self-evidence. In layman’s terms this would be the equivalent to repeating yourself unnecessarily during a conversation with another person. Additions to Information Theory
Following the 1963 published work and continuing into today, Information theory has been intensely studied, researched and critiqued. As a result, many other models of communication based upon the original Shannon-Weaver Mathematical Model have been successively produced and reproduced within the confines of communication study. Each reproduction definably adds another piece to the linear model of communication in an attempt to make it more realistic and complete in terms of communication being a cyclical process.
Probably the most influential change to this model was the addition of the element: feedback. Feedback or the communicative signal sent from a receiver to a message source of either affirmation or denial of the comprehension of a message made room for the idea of communication as conversation. The incorporation of feedback into the model transformed this linear view of communication into an interactional one where communication could now be understood as more of a continual and cyclic process rather than a unidirectional movement.
Figure 2 Figure 2: Shannon and Weavers Mathematical Model with the addition of a feedback loop. Today, communication models look much different. Figure 3 is just one example of a reproduced version of the model that includes numerous augmentations to reflect a more accurate version of what research has unveiled to take place during interpersonal communication. Elements such as cultural, situational and physical environment have been discovered to greatly affect the context in which a message is created and received.
The frame of reference alludes to the experiential background a person-in-conversation is enacting from (similar to a worldview or lens) when they interact with others. While you can identify certain enhancements, one can also notice that various parts of the model have been eliminated. Certain characteristics such as signal and transmitter have been omitted because of their relative triviality to interpersonal communication. Figure 3 Figure 3: A reproduced model of communication used today that was derived from Shannon and Weaver’s original Mathematical model.
The model contains various additions congruent with what communication theorists have discovered about communication henceforth. (Hillis) In summary, Information Theory is a communication model based upon mathematical statistics that provide an explanation and example of the processes that constitute a linear version of communication. It addresses the issue of noise within a communication operation and defines the effect of noise upon the communicated message via entropy. Critique The study of communication has always been open to interpretation and thus it has been subject to intense scrutiny.
More specifically, communication theory is continually and ruthlessly analyzed by not only theorists, but the scientific community in general. The very nature of theory (i. e. not fact) the essence of communication itself (interpretive) pervades this mentality in every arena to a maximum degree. And if any communication theory has the right to claim constant surveillance, it is Information theory. After all, it’s not considered the “mother theory” because it has been ignored. The staggering amount of augmented models and sheer number of outcropped theories lies in support of this statement.
In my opinion, Information theory is a class-A scientific theory. I say this mostly because of the presence of quantitative data. Although Warren Weaver interpreted this theory in light of interpersonal issues, the original theory was highly mathematical. It explained the issue of noise, could predict the outcome of a message in accordance with clarity, although it did not have a distinct hypothesis or guess of what the equations would yield it did define the key idea or problem by denoting entropy as the overarching factor to solve in order to ascertain message accuracy.
The theory, designed by an electrical engineer in and of itself is very complex. I would not expect anyone with an education short of a Ph. D. in mathematics to understand what it was saying. However, this theories saving grace is the co-author, Warren Weaver. Weaver managed to take a complex idea and simplify it into one understandable model. In addition, Weaver also tied the ideas of signal and digital messaging to interpersonal communication tactics that individuals use on a daily basis.
Now, not only was the theory simple and easy to understand but it resonated with the human community on a personal level granting this theory a unique place in the community that distinguished it from others. The practical utility of this theory was an exceptional characteristic as well. The timing of the public release of this theory, when telephones and computers were first being developed was the crux of its utility. It could be understood on a technical level and because of the model, could be witnessed by people in their daily lives.
In this portion of the critique, I will include later additions to the original Shannon and Weaver model. Although it is important to distinguish the original theory from the latter augmented ones, I believe it is also important to include some added elements because without the original theory, the augmented ones would not exist. It is because of this theory that we understand what we do about communication and it deserves credit for the latter additions to it because of its inherent foundational quality that can be found in all of the later theories.
What I think is special about this theory was that even though it was highly scientific and mathematical, was the ability of Warren Weaver to transform this scientific theory into a separate but unified interpretive idea. Although this theory contains all of the criteria to be considered scientific, it also contains all of the criteria to be considered interpretive (fitting for a communication theory that almost all others derive from). The new understanding of people that this theory brought about was incredible.
Communication could now be viewed and studied on paper. This theory gave it a face. The key concepts of interpreting messages and of interference due to noise and channels through which messages travel as well as the environment and frame of reference that affects the entire communication process all instituted a completely new way of looking at communication. Although the model began with a linear perspective, eventually it grew to include feedback and forced us to view communication as interactional rather than linear.
I believe that we all inherently experience these key ideas in our conversations and interactions with others and that somewhere in us we know about them, but putting these basic pieces into words and graphs allowed us to grapple with our human condition in a conscious way that we had not been able to do before. When I look at this theory, it is easy for me to see a specific clarification of values within the text even though it is not geared towards creating that idea.
This model and the understanding of people triggered an uncontrollable realization that what one person says might mean something different to the recipient. It bolstered the idea that we had to tailor our messages for our audience rather than just express how we feel or think about something. The responsibility of proper communication and the understanding of a message was placed upon the source of a message rather than the recipient. This idea could be taken even further into a selfish vs. other centered mentality and Information theory supported an “others centered” way of communication.
Whether or not there was a community of agreement on Information theory almost makes me laugh. The quantitative data and subsequent qualitative data serve as concrete support and procurement of a community of agreement. The weakness of this theory (if any), I must say would lie in the original model being linear. In theory, because of the broad nature of this theory, its weakness will always be that it somehow is missing a piece of communication that we haven’t yet defined. However, therein lies its aesthetic appeal.
This theory will always have another opportunity to redefine communication and will always act as a limit and boundary advancer. It is easy to see this theory at work within my own life. I am well aware of Information theories definable characteristics working in my conversations and interactions with others. It is easy to find a time when noise was affecting the message or when I or another person chose the wrong channel to communicate through or when the channel capacity was to small for me to convey certain messages to others.
However what is more difficult to recognize is the theories clarification of value worth and the subsequent areas in my life that it causes me to critically think about. There are many times when I communicate with others for an extreme selfish gain or when I do not take how others may react, feel, about or understand what I am saying. These are the instances that I must work harder to correct. Pieces of this theory make me realize that I need to take responsibility for my communication tactics and that I need to start communicating for others rather than on behalf of myself all the time.
Building relationships is a two way street and if both people in a relationship are looking inward and placing the responsibility to understand upon the other, the relationship will go nowhere very fast. I am fascinated by the amount of understanding I can gain about others before I even interact with them just by knowing how our communication process will work at the basic level. In my study of this theory and others I have been led to believe that an understanding of communication inherently pervades an understanding of people.
This in turn bolsters my belief that communication is not just a tool of society and culture but that it creates the world around us. Again, this causes me to think critically about what kind of world I am creating with the words and gestures and I am communicating towards others and the world in general. In conclusion, what distinguishes this theory from all of the rest is its ability to travel between scientific and interpretive spectrums. A theory like this has the ability to discover truth in a way that an entirely scientific or entirely interpretive theory could not. The generality and yet incredible importance of the key ideas fit together in a way that makes truth in this case, almost self-evident.
1. C. David Mortensen, Communication: The Study of Human Communication (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co. , 1972), Chapter 2, “Communication Models. ” 2. “Claude Shannon”. Wikipedia the free Encyclopedia. 20 January, 2012 http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Claude_Shannon 3. Griffin, Em. “A First Look at Communication Theory”. 8th Edition. McGraw- Hill 2012. 20, February 2012 4. Hillis, Stephen. “The Components of Communication” Handout. 5. Information Theory”. Wikipedia the free Encyclopedia. 10 February, 2012. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Information_theory 6. Shannon, Claude & Weaver, Warren “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. University of Illinois Press 1964. 1949 Board of Trustees, University of Illinois. 22 February, 2012 7. Touretzky, David S. “Basics of Information Theory”. 24 November, 2004. Carnegie Mellon University. 20 February, 2012. http://www. cs. cmu. edu/~dst/Tutorials/Info-Theory/ 8. “Warren Weaver”. Wikipedia the free Encyclopedia. 24 December, 2011. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Warren_Weaver